99 Problems

Published on January 31st, 2017 | by Jen Bryant


Jen Bryant is THE NEW KID ON THE PLAYGROUND —The Looks You Get as a Young MUTHA

When I was growing up, I changed schools several times. Each time I’d arrive at a new school, it would take me a while to adjust. A shy, introverted bookworm by nature, I often hung back, waiting for the other students to accept me. One year, I even invented an imaginary friend to fill that empty, lonely space in the seat next to me on the bus. This was less intimidating than initiating contact with one of the other kids and possibly facing rejection. Fitting in seemed to come easily to most of my peers; meanwhile, I felt marked by my interests (dorky), my clothes (secondhand long before it was cool), and the lack of athletic abilities that would have provided a built-in social group.

Changing schools in elementary was hard enough; middle school was even worse. By 10th grade, when my family moved again, I was eagerly anticipating graduation. Only a few years away from adulthood, my freedom from social awkwardness was so close, I could almost taste it. No more trying to figure out where to sit at lunch, what group would have me, or which of the comments directed my way were genuine and not carefully constructed, underhanded barbs. I assumed that adulthood granted a mysterious and immediate social maturity. Going forward, schoolyard cliques behind us, surely we would judge each other less harshly.

Yeah, I was way off.

As a new mother, I often imagined a bond with other parents based on our shared experiences. After all, we understood the exhaustion of 2 AM feedings, the struggle to feel at home in our postpartum bodies, and the pure delight of sticky kisses from our tiny offspring in ways no one else could. This had to bridge the gaps between us, right?

As a teen mom, though, I knew that my feeling of belonging to this universal motherhood club was often a one-way street. I became a mother when the ink on my high school diploma was barely dry, just months after moving out of my own mother’s house. I loved parenting despite the challenges, but the comments, stares, and judgments of friends and strangers alike told me that I was not, indeed, like other mothers. Playgroups were exercises in anxiety. Never mind that I was warm and attentive, or that my son was well cared for and happy. When other mothers looked at me, they just seemed to see a stereotype. They didn’t relate to me. I was not a mother like them; I was a teen mom. Anything I did well was an exception to the rule. Everything else was to be expected from someone like me. Teen motherhood, in my small Southern town, was seen as a consequence, a cautionary tale, and above all, something to be ashamed of.

And yet, somehow, I thought that the preschool environment would be different. After all, I had signed my son up for a Montessori program, where diversity was supposedly celebrated (and where the tuition was roughly half of my monthly income). Surely these parents would be more enlightened than the playgroup moms I’d encountered at library storytimes and in church basements. Despite my being a 22-year-old-mom to a preschool-aged child, I just knew that these moms would look past my exterior and see through to our similarities. My lifestyle more closely resembled theirs than those of my same-age peers, anyway. No keggers, overseas backpacking adventures, or regrettable one-night stands for me; my life revolved around Legos, naptimes, and books with pictures in them.

On the first day of preschool, I parked my Pontiac with the broken driver’s side door handle between an Audi and a BMW and led my son up the narrow walkway to the school. Framed by the heavy wooden doors, he suddenly seemed so tiny. I tried to ignore the lump in my throat as I hugged him and told him I’d be back soon. As I turned to leave, I caught the eye of a mom of one of the older kids as she stood talking to some other parents. She’s been in my shoes before, I thought, so maybe we can talk about these first-day jitters. I smiled and said hello; she looked me over and turned away.

And just like that, I was the new kid in school again, attempting friendship with the popular girls without understanding the intricate social rules that govern such situations. Much like that first day of middle school, I felt all wrong as I stood in the preschool lobby: wrong hair (mine was long, theirs bobbed); wrong clothes (low-rise jeans and a tank top to their trousers and blouses); wrong shoes (I wore flip-flops; they were all in heels and expensive-looking flats).

The differences didn’t stop at our appearances, as I would learn over the next few weeks. I worked retail out of necessity and attended community college during the day, when my son was at preschool. They had careers, not jobs, or they didn’t work at all. Most of them had degrees from fancy universities that they’d wisely earned before becoming parents. Some of the other moms were closer in age to my own parents than to me; when they graduated, I was probably watching Sesame Street.

Still, I tried. I initiated conversations at drop-offs and pick-ups, only to receive one-word responses. Searching for common ground, I tried chatting about various topics, but upcoming school events, class projects, and even the weather proved to be non-starters. (The fathers were sometimes friendlier, but this, too, made me seem suspect.) When I volunteered for field trips, I thought we’d have a chance to get better acquainted. Instead, I often ended up trailing behind with the kids as the other moms talked and laughed in clusters. I responded enthusiastically to every invite-the-whole-class birthday party invitation my son received, missing much-needed Saturday work hours and spending way too much on wooden learning toys I felt were sure to impress as birthday gifts. But, when I attempted to return the invitations by suggesting playdates at my rented duplex, I was gently rebuffed. Eventually, I started lurking around the perimeters, rushing to and from my car. In this way, my son’s first year of preschool passed. While he was making new friends, in class at least, I was metaphorically being passed over for the team by his friends’ moms.

I don’t think it was personal. The other mothers simply couldn’t relate to me. We were separated not only by age, but also by socioeconomic differences. To them, motherhood was the latest in a lifelong series of projects to be executed perfectly. They were carefully curating lives for themselves and futures for their children. The neighborhoods they lived in, the school their children attended, and the company they kept all seemed to be deliberate decisions, designed to produce children who would never need to take a pregnancy test and a high school exam on the same day. I was a rough stone skipping across the otherwise perfectly calm waters of these plans, my very presence causing unintentional ripples. But even though I tried not to take it to heart, feeling like an outsider still stung.

This wasn’t 6th grade anymore; I could no longer conjure up an imaginary friend to keep me company in my loneliness. And I didn’t want to spend another year waiting pathetically for approval that might never come.

True, I had gotten knocked up before reaching the culturally-sanctioned age. I did not yet own a home, a backyard pool, or any articles of clothing costing over $30. I wasn’t a lawyer or even a lawyer’s wife. But what did I have to be ashamed of? I was working to put myself through school while also raising a child; that took determination and guts. I couldn’t take my son on expensive vacations, but we had a blast running through our tiny townhouse in homemade superhero masks, dancing to The Ramones, and going to the park to play in the dirt and look for four-leaf clovers.

There was no denying our differences. But the truth (which I’d ignored while I was busy feeling sorry for myself) was that I had a choice. Skulking around timidly would get me nowhere. Better to embrace what made me unique. Shame is a dead-end road. While I had taken a shorter path to get to motherhood, I was still a damn good mom.

As we entered my son’s second year of preschool, I made an active decision to stop acting like the new kid on the playground. I worked on overcoming my shyness and started talking to the other parents more. I continued to chaperone field trips, show up for birthday parties, and hang around at pick-up to push my son on the swings. And as the other mothers got to know me better, they started to notice other things besides my age: that their kids liked my kid, that I never missed a school event, and that I could always be counted on to pitch in and help when there was a potluck. The less I worried about our differences, the smaller they seemed – to them and to me. We never became best friends, but by the time the preschool graduation ceremony rolled around, I was no longer examining myself through other people’s eyes.

My son is now a teenager; I’m in my 30s. I’ve grown since I was that shy new mom on the first day of preschool; now I’m experienced, confident, and nearing the end of the active parenting years. I have to admit that even now, there are times when I feel out of place, like at my son’s new high school on open house night, where I am repeatedly mistaken for the older sister. Now, instead of letting it make me feel insecure, I smile and move on. I look around the room for the other moms who are standing slightly off to the side, maybe feeling as awkward and alone as I once did. And I say hello.

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About the Author

Jen Bryant is a writer, perpetual student, and stray cat whisperer. Her work has appeared in Ms., BUST, The Sun Magazine, Hipmama, and elsewhere. Jen is an editor at MUTHA Magazine and a creative nonfiction reader for Mud Season Review. A native of the South, she currently resides in the Midwest.

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